There’s no hiding from it — baseballs in the major leagues are being pitched faster than ever before, on average. I mean, we don’t have all that much of a record, but the trend is blatantly obvious over the past 10 or 15 years, and it stands to reason it extends ever back. A few years ago, this was a really interesting observation. Now, it’s something everyone already knows. Pitchers throw harder than they used to. That’s a given. Seemingly every bullpen now has an arm or three who would’ve been a certified flamethrower a decade ago.
Why is this happening? It’s important to try to understand the reasons. There are a lot of ideas out there, many of them valid. There’s a belief that, in general, teams are increasingly obsessed with velocity. And bullpens are being used more aggressively, with relievers throwing harder than starters. Newer training techniques are getting more out of young pitchers, so pitchers also just arrive throwing harder. You’ve got teenagers throwing harder, and teams looking for powerful arms and promising bodies — as a consequence, between 2002 – 2004, rookie starters threw their fastballs a hair under 90. The last three years, that average has gone up to 92. Why the increased velocity? “Youth” is a common response.
It’s definitely a big part of the answer. It’s not all of it. I think there’s something else happening, and it can allow us to link a number of this offseason’s free agents.
There was something I noticed when I was researching and writing up a handful of guys. In each case it was interesting, individually, but I think it’s also interesting as part of a potential pattern. More recently, Ian Kennedy‘s stuff has played up. The same can be said of Mike Leake. The same can also be said of J.A. Happ.
Aging curves exist for almost everything. Our basic idea of how fastball velocity ages is that it peaks very early — maybe even when a pitcher is a rookie. Then begins the gradual decline, with the loss of a mile per hour every few years. It makes enough sense; we’re all pretty fresh in our early 20s. As pitchers get older, they put more wear and tear on their bodies, and that saps some potential. The hope is that the pitchers compensate by improving their repertoires or command.
I decided to look at something simple. I identified starting pitchers who threw at least 200 innings somewhere between 2005 – 2014. Then I narrowed to those who also started at least a few times in 2015, and I looked at their average fastball velocities. Of course, overall, velocity was down for the pitchers this past season, relative to before. But at the very top of the list, you get Brandon McCarthy, whose fastball was almost three ticks harder in 2015. If you look down the list a little bit, you see Happ at +1.3mph. You see Leake, at +1.1. You see Kennedy, at +1.1. You see Rich Hill, at +1.0. You also see Mike Pelfrey, just below +1.0. Those are five free-agent starters, all of them signed, and not only have they not lost velocity — they’ve gained it. They’ve bucked the usual aging curve, and they’ve kept themselves relevant.
It’s not just limited to free agents. McCarthy wasn’t a free agent. Chris Sale throws harder than he used to. Jake Arrieta, too, as well as Nathan Eovaldi. Also Cole Hamels, and Carlos Carrasco, and Tanner Roark, and…in your head, when you think about a pitcher aging, you might think of someone more like Jered Weaver, whose fastball went and replaced itself with Mark Buehrle‘s fastball when Weaver wasn’t looking. Ubaldo Jimenez has lost a lot of zip, and so have Justin Masterson and CC Sabathia, and so on. There are still pitchers who age normally, or even quickly. But the aging curve is by no means universal.
As another little test, I looked at starters who appeared as rookies between 2002 – 2004. I averaged their fastballs, and then I averaged the fastballs of those who were still starting five years later. They lost an average of 0.54mph, with a median of -0.70. Then I did the same thing for starters who appeared as rookies between 2009 – 2011. They lost an average of 0.18mph, with a median of 0.00. It’s small, even if it’s real, but it somewhat supports the idea that pitchers are better able to preserve their velocity in the majors, if not improve it.
It’s not an easy thing to track. I’ve been thinking about this for days, and even now you can tell I haven’t figured out the best way to write about it. But the sense I get is our idea of velocity aging curves is maybe a little outdated. People have had no trouble crediting improved training techniques for increasing velocity among young players. But now we’ve also seen examples of better techniques increasing velocity among established players. And for those who don’t gain life, many have still been able to keep it from declining. I remember reading about how the Rays developed a series of shoulder exercises that helped James Shields add two ticks. David Price also added a couple ticks with the same organization. Clayton Kershaw hasn’t really lost anything despite surpassing 1,600 career innings. Now I’m just picking examples off the top of my head, but I trust you know what I’m getting at.
I’m not an expert in this stuff. I know very little about physical training and biomechanics. Thankfully, there are experts, with teams or consulting with players, and I can just pick through their accomplishments. When people have talked about the increase in Tommy John surgeries, they’ve also frequently referred to the apparent decline in shoulder surgeries. That suggests a broad focus on strengthening the shoulder, which would come with velocity benefits. The elbow will still give out whenever it feels like it — look at McCarthy, or look at Homer Bailey, who also had a velocity uptick before the injury. But I’m thinking that fastballs just don’t deteriorate that much. Not given the proper training, which seems easier than ever to find.
Left to do its own thing, the body will throw a baseball less forcefully over time. Body parts age, and they grow weaker. There’s evidence that pitchers are getting better about combating this effect, both anecdotal and statistical. So you have pitchers preserving their fastballs, and you have some other pitchers even improving their fastballs, after reaching the major leagues. It makes you wonder about longevity — as long as the elbow holds out, pitchers could conceivably last longer, which maybe helps explain why the Royals were comfortable guaranteeing five years to Ian Kennedy. Or maybe not. It’s just an idea.
Velocity is up in the game for any number of reasons, and it doesn’t have to all be about the new youth. A critical piece is the hard-throwing new guys. But you also have to keep in mind the old guys. Their fastballs don’t just go away. Not always, not if they don’t let them.
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